Rediscovering the Dena’ina

October 15, 2013
Dena'ina fish camp

Dena’ina fish camp at Chanshtnu (Chester Creek), in Anchorage. Photo courtesy of Nora McCord.

This story by Kathleen McCoy was previously published on Oct. 12, 2013, in the Anchorage Daily News Hometown U blog.

The “Dena’ina Way of Living” exhibit at the Anchorage Museum opened with fanfare and a community symposium the weekend of Sept. 15. Its language and storytelling, craft and technology artifacts will be available through Jan. 12.

But few know a significant personal story behind the exhibit, of a boy who grew up in Anchorage deeply frustrated that he couldn’t learn anything about being a Dena’ina Athabascan.

“When I really knew there was a problem,” said Aaron Leggett, co-curator of the exhibit, “was when I went to work at the Alaska Native Heritage Center after my first year in college. I’d tell other Alaska Natives that I was Dena’ina, and they didn’t even know what that was, or that Alaska Native people had even lived here.”

First inklings for Leggett came at age 19, when he learned from an article by an Eklutna elder that his great-great-grandfather had a fish camp in Anchorage until about 1918. But as he grew up, “I never went to fish camp or ate moose at my grandma’s house.” They didn’t talk about their Native ways; he wondered why.

The trail from curious boy to museum curator passed through UAA, where Leggett chose to major in anthropology and take a pivotal class.

Aaron_Leggett

Aaron Leggett, photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum.

In 2006 and 2007, two cultural anthropologists, professor Steve Langdon of UAA and Jim Fall of the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, collaborated with local elders on a class that would fill in the untold and unrepresented story of Southcentral’s Dena’ina Athabascans. An eager Leggett became their teaching assistant.

A big goal of the class was to identify local places significant to the Dena’ina and explain how and why they were used traditionally. So many of them are common Anchorage spots — Chester Creek, Campbell Creek, Westchester Lagoon, Fish Creek, Ship Creek, Potter Marsh (before the railroad arrived), Point Woronzof, Point Campbell in Kincaid Park, Glen Alps in the Chugach Mountains, Mount Susitna across the Inlet. Their Dena’ina names are rarely used, and the bit of public information the students found was dismissive and wrong.

The instructors still bristle at a sign the class found at Third Avenue and F Street on a downtown walking tour. It reported that the “Tanaina” had only lived in the area for 350 years, and gives the impression the Dena’ina were wiped out by disease.

Those facts are wrong. The Dena’ina document a 1,000-year residency in Cook Inlet and the local population still numbers about 2,000.

“To me, what this does is marginalize the Dena’ina,” Leggett wrote in a paper. The city has since removed the sign.

Popular Chester Creek is an anglicized version of the Dena’ina name, Chanshtnu, or Grass Creek, a major fishing site.

“No,” says Professor Langdon, “there was never a guy named Chester,” as many assumed.

Another example: Captain Cook standing at Third Avenue and L Street, “a statue for a man who spent 10 days here and never got off the boat,” Leggett wrote. “And because he ‘discovered’ this area, we no longer use the far more descriptive name of Tikahtnu, or ‘Big Water River’ for the inlet.”

Langdon calls the Cook statue an example of “privileging European and American history and culture,” common in the mid-20th century when Native American rights were an “unwanted relic to be eradicated.”

Ezi family at Nuch'ishtunt (Point Woronzof)

Ezi family at their fish camp at Nuch’ishtunt (Point Woronzof). From ‘Shem Pete’s Alaska,’ p. 338. Photo courtesy of Alberta Stephan.

Students found no recognition for Point Woronzof, or Nuch’ishtunt, a key fish camp and residential and burial site for the Dena’ina, now embroiled in a debate over potential expansion of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

The class and its work hasn’t been all grim; quite the contrary. One scene Leggett says “I’ll take to my grave” was the 2007 unanimous endorsement by the Anchorage Assembly to name the city’s new convention center after the Dena’ina people. The work he and his classmates had done localizing rich Dena’ina connections to popular Anchorage landmarks was part of the winning testimony.

“Ultimately those 14 green lights set the ball rolling for all of this,” Leggett said, referring to the newly opened exhibit. “Things I thought would take the rest of my life to do were kicked into high gear.”

Indeed, at age 25, he was named co-curator for the exhibit, duties he has shared with Suzi Jones, deputy director of the museum, and Jim Fall.

I asked him what his favorite piece in the new exhibit is. That was a tough choice, since his great-great-grandfather’s knife and dentalium-decorated belt were on display, along with rare artifacts he’d gathered from museums all over Europe.

But Leggett chose a single item, the only known beluga whale harpoon used by Dena’ina people in Alaska. Of wood and bone, it dates to 1883.

Hunters sat on platforms suspended over the Inlet water and mud, near river mouths. The platforms were upended spruce trees, roots to the sky, which had been debarked and secured in the mud with greased and braided lines. Hunters with harpoons crouched in the opened root section, waiting for belugas in pursuit of salmon headed upstream.

These Yuyqul (beluga-spearing platforms) were uniquely Dena’ina, and, because of that, especially significant to Leggett.

“I really wanted to convey the idea that, yes, Dena’ina are Athabascans. Yes, 80 percent of us fits into that neat category, but as the only northern Athabascans who live on salt water, 20 percent is completely original with us,” he said.

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